March 14, 2020

What Is Running Economy, Anyway?


You’ve probably noticed how much this program emphasizes running economy. But, what actually is it, and how does it improve? 

Running economy is defined as the amount of oxygen you consume at a given pace. Think of a fuel efficient car, able to zoom for miles on less gasoline. Basically, if you’re using less oxygen at a given speed, that speed will be more sustainable. But, how do we get there? 

Well, we run. 

We run, and we run, and we run some more. The best way to make your body more efficient at something is to practice it, whether it’s running or hiking or playing the piano. The saying goes that to truly master something, you need to practice it for 10,000 hours (although there’s some debate about exactly what that entails, but still). What if you don’t have 10,000 hours of time set aside for running between now and your next race? How do you improve using what time you do have to re-tool your running engine so that it becomes more efficient?

Run easy, a lot. Easy running helps develop your slow-twitch (ST) muscle-fiber composition and mitochondrial and capillary density, both of which help improve running economy. Basically, it makes you stronger and makes your oxygen delivery system more robust. Easy running also boosts musculoskeletal strength and durability, meaning, you can safely add even more volume for even better economy!

Start fresh. Though there are some benefits to strength training (more on that later) prioritizing running over lifting, hiking, biking, underwater basket weaving or whatever it is you do will result in better running and improved economy. Running on sore, tired and heavy legs tanks your economy (though sometimes ultrarunners will specifically train on fatigued legs to promote ultra-specific stimulus, most of your runs should be done on the freshest legs possible) and essentially trains you to run as if you are always fatigued. Training at your best (well-rested and ready to rumble!) will result in the biggest gains for running economy. 

Check your form. Experts who study this kind of thing generally agree that the way your body wants to run is probably the safest and most efficient form for you. That will look different for everyone. Some general suggestions are to run tall through your hips, lean forward, maintain a compact arm swing and land with your footstrike under your center of gravity (as opposed to overstriding, with your foot way out in front). In terms of cadence, light quick strides are ideal but the exact number will depend on your pace, the key here is to avoid plodding, heavy strides. Think light and tall!

Some strength training can be helpful. (OCR athletes, look away!) But don’t go overboard. The best way to get better at running is to run, and at a certain point, our bodies can only adapt to so much stimulus. To get much out of your time in the gym, you are going to have to push yourself (with heavy weights, explosive work or plyometric work). Your body can only handle so much stress. And, if you add in stress from jumping around and pushing up big weights, you will have to take some stress away somewhere else, probably in the form of lower running volume, less intensity and time training. So, you’re just trading one adaptation for another (the adaptation you get from running more vs. what you get in the weight room). While some studies will point out that this tradeoff is worth it, we find that most athletes benefit from more time running than from hitting the gym hard. 

The same goes for cross-training. Biking or elliptical or swimming all build the aerobic engine, increasing capillaries and mitochondria that enhance oxygen-processing ability. And that’s great, as long as it doesn’t take away from running. If biking really made you a better runner, I wouldn’t regularly top Lance on Aspen area Strava segments. Specificity matters, and just getting fitter won’t always make you a better runner. The caveat here is always if you love adventuring on bike or taking time for yourself at the pool, fantastic! Work with your coach to incorporate that into your training, and don’t expect those pool laps to translate to a break-through performance at your 100 miler. 

There are some benefits to proper, run-specific strength training: it can help power output independent of aerobic development and reduce the risk of some injuries. The best strength routine is one that you can complete consistently, and that doesn’t take time away from your running or make you prohibitively sore. We recommend these two simple routines (1 & 2 and some optional pushups (one minute) and core work (one to two minutes) two to three times a week AFTER your run. If you just like going to the gym and getting your pump on, that’s great. Just don’t expect it to make you a better runner, and make sure you’re prioritizing your running, especially leading up to races. 

Run fast, occasionally! Strides help fine-tune how your brain communicates with your muscles (neuromuscular efficiency!), and work as a low-key series of mini plyometrics to jump-start the amount of force your legs can produce. Fast running tends to spur your best form, so spending a bit of time really striding out essentially teaches your body to run better by forcing it to run efficiently at top-end speeds. 

So, what’s the takeaway? Do more easy running, focus on a quick, soft cadence and improve power transfer through strategic strength work and fast strides. The secret is there is no secret. Relax, and enjoy the ride.